Patch ignored early advice about one journalist-per-town model

Before Tim Armstrong launched Patch, jumped from Google to AOL, bought it from his own investment group and expanded it across the nation, he ignored early advice suggesting that the hyperlocal’s one-journalist-per-town model would not work.

Quinnipiac University journalism professor Rich Hanley says he was asked to help with a secret “beta test” of Patch in Hamden, Connecticut, prior to its later public launch in three New Jersey communities.

Patch paid Quinnipiac students to test whether one full-time journalist could provide all the content necessary to make a  hyperlocal website about the community viable.

The answer they gave – “No” – was not what Patch wanted to hear. Hanley said that their test in Hamden found the town to be too diverse, too complicated, too time-consuming for one person to handle.

Patch pushed forward with the model anyway, but used the findings, at least initially, to shape the types of communities it chose for sites. They looked for towns with a defined downtown core, high average household income, and significant digital literacy. That is, communities that were not particularly diverse, or complicated.

But after AOL took over and took Patch from three sites to more than 900 in about 18 months, Hanley said, not as much thought or rigidity, at least, went in to selecting communities.

They had a great, easy-to-use hyperlocal web platform, and were “blinded by the ease with which you can replicate digital stuff.”

“They thought they could just press a button,” Hanley said, pluck someone from a local journalism school, and have a site that would be meaningful to the community.

The clearest sign that the advice didn’t sink in, perhaps, was that one of those 900 sites ended up being a Hamden, Connecticut, Patch, staffed with the one-journalist-per-town model that Hanley and his students said wouldn’t work there.

Speaking at a Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association conference Thursday, Hanley said he did not accept money as an early Patch advisor, in part, so he’d be “free to criticize them” down the road.

Hanley said Patch expanded too fast, and without a solid plan for local advertising sales. “The second flaw was they didn’t promote the sites enough,” he said, wondering why they didn’t do things like sponsor the high school football field scoreboards in Patch towns.

Some of the Quinnipiac grads who went to work for Patch have already left.

“They weren’t learning anything on the job,” Hanley said. “They weren’t getting better. They were just burning out.”

That’s where the benefit of working in a traditional newspaper or TV newsroom comes into play, Hanley said.

“You’ve got to have quality assurance. In a newspaper, it’s the copy desk,” Hanley said. “You’ve got to have another set of eyeballs on the content before it’s posted.”

Former Hartford Courant Managing Editor Claude Albert wonders why Patch doesn’t leverage its journalists in Connecticut for “a higher aim.” If he had 80 reporters stationed around the state, Albert said, all kinds of ideas would come to mind in terms of enterprise, investigative reporting or deeper analysis of important topics.

University of Connecticut School of Journalism Dean Maureen Croteau said that the difference between Patch and many newspapers who often have less than one reporter covering a single town is that Patch editors are more in the mode of “feeding the site,” seven days a week, with everything from calendar items to breaking news.

Hanley said that they asked Patch management in the early days about their plans for investigative and enterprise reporting. They pointed to Google Map visualizations of police blotter and fire department call reports, and said “the rest would come later.”

“Think of Patch as a piece of software, because that’s what it is,” Hanley said. “And it shipped with a lot of bugs.”

Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day in New London, said he was worried at first when Patch moved into his coverage area.

Then it ended up being “largely stenography instead of journalism, and it’s wildly inconsistent from town to town.”

But Farrugia is keeping a very close eye on it, because they have a good platform and it might be a matter of time before they or their successor figures out how to use it well.

“I’m worried about what comes after them,” he said.

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About mattderienzo

Matt DeRienzo is group editor of Digital First Media's publications in Connecticut, including the New Haven Register, Middletown Press, Register Citizen, Connecticut Magazine and weeklies including the Litchfield County Times and West Hartford News. Previously, he served as publisher of The Register Citizen, Middletown Press and a group of weeklies in Northwest Connecticut, and before that was corporate director of news for small dailies and non-daily publications for Yardley, Pennsylvania-based Journal Register Company, Foothills Media Group's parent company. DeRienzo serves on the board of the Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Northwest Connecticut, and has served as co-chairman of the United Way's annual fundraising campaign in 2009 and again in 2011. In 2011, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the United Way of Northwest Connecticut and was named one of the "50 Most Influential People in Litchfield County" by Litchfield Magazine. In early 2011, The Register Citizen was named one of Editor & Publisher magazine's "10 Newspapers That Do It Right," and DeRienzo was named to its annual "25 Under 35" list of leaders in the newspaper industry. In the fall of 2011, The Register Citizen was awarded the Associated Press Managing Editors Innovator of the Year Award in recognition of The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, an "open newsroom" launched in Torrington, Connecticut, in December 2010.
This entry was posted in AOL, Claude Albert, Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, Gary Farrugia, Maureen Croteau, Patch, Quinnipiac University, Rich Hanley, The Day, Tim Armstrong. Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to Patch ignored early advice about one journalist-per-town model

  1. Jen says:

    Reblogged this on Behind the Press and commented:
    Rich Hanley was my graduate adviser, and we remain friends. I respect his opinion a great deal, so this is a must read if you’re interested in what’s happening with Patch. And I can’t say I disagree with his assessments, honestly.

    Some day I’ll write something about my experiences with Patch. And, for the record, they weren’t all awful or terrible. It was exhausting work, but it was fulfilling work when I could do things the way I saw fit. My freedom in covering my community and connecting with it was important to the success I had with Patch. On the whole Patch was pretty good to me.

    • mattderienzo says:

      Jen, I know a number of extremely talented journalists who work at Patch, and can’t say enough good things about the work they do on their sites. One of the reasons I’m interested in the topic (besides the fact that Patch operates dozens of sites in the coverage areas of the newspapers I edit) is that I worry about their future given the failure so far of the Patch business model.

      • Jen says:

        Hi Matt,

        I don’t disagree with you about worrying. There are people out there who seem to want to dance on Patch’s grave before it’s even a grave. Do they not realize hundreds of journalists, many of them talented, will be out of work?

        And there are lots of reasons I left Patch. I’m just careful what I say about those reasons publicly.

  2. annatarkov says:

    This pretty much sums up what I’ve always thought about Patch. In one experience I can point to, a local Patch editor contacted me about doing some freelance work on the schools beat. Like most Patch towns, it’s a wealthy community with excellent public schools but there’s a lot of drama nevertheless (or perhaps as a result of having so many educated, civically-minded parents). She had a freelance budget and wanted to spend some of it to put someone on schools for the foreseeable future. Her goal, she said, was to really produce some quality reporting on schools (not just stenography of the board meetings) and she sensed this would only be possible if there was someone dedicated to that coverage day in and day out (yes, obviously, I thought to myself). I was thrilled at the prospect and started out writing a few stories about a referendum battle that was currently raging and covering some school board meetings. After those first 2-3 stories though, the editor ruefully told me that her freelance budget had been cut and that she wouldn’t be able to put me on the schools beat after all. I never heard from her again.

    To put things into context, she was in her early 20′s, had gone to journalism school and was completely comfortable with all the digital tools at her disposal. She seemed excited and happy with her Patch job overall and I remember thinking at the time that her site was generally quite good. I have no idea if she was hitting her traffic targets or not, but what I could tell for sure was that she felt something more was needed besides stories about bake sales, high school football games and a new clothes boutique opening up in town. She felt that there needed to be more substantive reporting. She wanted someone to really dig into the school districts’ budgets, get to know the key players, ask tough questions, etc. Alas, her superiors at Patch didn’t seem to share her outlook.

    • mattderienzo says:

      Rich Hanley brought that up yesterday … that freelance budgets had been cut severely after editors were hired, which kind of pulled the rug out from under them.

    • Inside says:

      Freelance budgets were reduced in fall of 2011, then eliminated completely when those resources were taken out of editorial and used to hire more ad sales people. Local editors, who are really reporters, are now in service to their ad sales teams. Sales teams dictate stories to local editors in an effort to drum up more advertising. Of course Patch denies that strategy, but all you have to do is look at individual Patch sites, with their “pizza playoffs” and puff stories about local convenience stores, to know it’s true.

      Patch has no standards, it provides no training or support to its journalists, and it exists as a vehicle to drive local advertising. It stopped being a local news source a long time ago. There are apologists, but quid pro quo content for advertisers is unethical and indefensible.

  3. Pingback: Patch ignored early advice about one journalist-per-town model

  4. “Hanley said Patch expanded too fast, and without a solid plan for local advertising sales.”

    The above is really the only on-point criticism of the Patch model in this article. I am no fan of Patch — I think it’s the McDonalds of online local news, if McDonalds had wildly inconsistent quality control. But to say that one person (plus freelancers) can’t provide meaningful coverage of a town of 50,000 is baloney. Also, it’s coming from someone who obviously has never tried to do what he’s saying can’t be done. Here’s some actual personal experience talking: it can be done and is being done.

    Once again, those who are used to the newspaper monopoly model of local news are setting impossibly high standards for local journalism in the online age. This High Church of Journalism berates hard-working reporters for telling residents about stuff they actually care about — the restaurant opening down the street, the fire that happened an hour ago, items on the county board agenda.

    “Former Hartford Courant Managing Editor Claude Albert wonders why Patch doesn’t leverage its journalists in Connecticut for “a higher aim.” If he had 80 reporters stationed around the state, Albert said, all kinds of ideas would come to mind in terms of enterprise, investigative reporting or deeper analysis of important topics.”

    These journalism snobs are dragging down the industry by forgetting what matters — readers. People in Hamden, Conn. want to know about the kind of stuff that Patch is reporting on and the journalistic nobility here is poo-pooing. An investigation or deep analysis is nice and all, but it’s an unaffordable luxury when trying to cover the daily goings-on in a local community AND not lose gobs of money while doing so. Those who truly see the importance of local journalism should be supportive of efforts to cover community news online in a sustainable way, and shouldn’t be so quick to criticize when the journalistic output doesn’t meet their preconceived notion of what a metro daily newspaper would be covering.

    • annatarkov says:

      There’s nothing wrong with covering the opening of a new restaurant; that just can’t be the ONLY stuff being covered.

    • Scott, you are correct. The one thing in the article that I doubted was the claim that Patch would not be able to cover one town (small cities, boroughs, etc, not NYC of course) with one reporter. That’s actually a lot of coverage when you consider newspapers have about one reporter per five municipalities — I’m going by my past newspaper experience in small-ish markets. One reporter per town is actually quite ambitious. However, they will be stretched thin if that one reporter has 15 beats, ie news, schools, sports, crime, lifestyles, etc.

      So maybe Patch needs to pick one or two beats and be really good at those.

  5. As my own one-man band, I admit to selfish glee at the sight of industry types remaining haughty, supercilious and arrogant. It’s what put them in their position in the first place — and what, at least in my neck o’ the woods, helps sell my product. Around here, the locals truly get it…. Honestly: Instead of trying to school them on what they might better be doing, I’d sooner keep my yap shut, tend to my model and hope the slightest clues continue to elude them.

  6. Jodie Mozdzer says:

    Some of these points are valid.

    But I don’t think it’s “one journalist- one town” that’s the problem. Heck, several major daily newspapers have one journalist covering two towns, three towns, four towns, even five towns.
    It’s not ideal, but the newspapers still function.

    The idea behind Patch is that local news is important. I completely agree with that premise. I never really understood why some people look down on community news. It doesn’t have to be all ribbon cuttings. There are real issues happening to real people in small communities every day. I find it extremely rewarding to cover these issues — especially as larger media outlets ignore them.

    The problem here seems to be a shift from unique coverage to canned content, and quotas for content that burn out the reporters at the sites.

    If readers want to see general stories, they can go elsewhere. They come to local media to get unique stories that impacts their daily lives. I think Patch would better if it allowed the editors more flexibility to report on the issues unique to their communities.

    Again — one-reporter one-town is not the problem. Corporate mandates for how to cover vastly different communities is closer to the truth, IMHO.

  7. Dan Kennedy says:

    I agree that the one-reporter-per-town limit is not Patch’s real problem. Again, as others point out, plenty of community newspapers are already doing that, or not even that. The fundamental problem is that local-news projects need to bubble up from the bottom. A top-down, corporate approach just doesn’t work. @Howard, is it you who likes to say “local doesn’t scale”? Well, that’s right. It doesn’t. And yes, I also know some good journalists who are working at Patch. So that’s not the issue.

  8. Jim Welch says:

    I’d encourage folks to also read Ken Doctor’s Nieman piece on Patch and JRC/Digital First as well. http://bit.ly/xK3pTY

    Thanks for the post Matt.

  9. Ron Welby says:

    Patch is here to stay. Some markets are pulling in 6 digits a month. Most newspapers don’t have a patch strategy. Patch is going to go out of business is not a strategy. Someone will probably buy them probably A. Huffington. They are still kicking a number of newspapers butts in some markets. Hope the strategy I implemented in Connecticut is still in place.

    Regards,
    Ron

  10. What I never figured out is why Patch insisted on using the patch.com domain, and then have every local site on a subdomain (assuming for SEO reasons). It makes each patch site feel impersonal and void of character – it’s so cookie-cutter that AOL couldn’t even put in the effort to brand each site. Not sure how the citizens of a patch town feel about that – I certainly would be insulted.

    • mattderienzo says:

      Wasn’t there talk of a major national branding campaign … get people across the country associating the word “Patch” with great local content? But haven’t seen that materialize. And not sure it would ring true, anyway.

  11. Erik says:

    Maybe Patch chose such a tough town as an experiment? If Patch could make it there, Patch could make it anywhere.

    I am from the town north of Hamden and I know just what Ethan is talking about. Hamden has a population of 60,000 of enormous diversity, and is large geographically, too. With an endless news cycle, it’s hard to imagine any one person doing a good job covering Hamden. Maybe a different town, but not Hamden.

  12. Pingback: Can One Journalist Cover An Entire City? « Pat Garofalo

  13. Joe says:

    Is this guy writing for the same JRC that produces exactly the same kind of journalism he criticizes Patch for?

    • mattderienzo says:

      I actually wasn’t criticizing Patch, just recounting what I heard at this panel discussion, which I thought was significant. I have friends and former employees who work for Patch who do an excellent job. And I don’t believe anyone should underestimate the value of community news coverage. I do agree with the statements above that the quality of Patch sites vary wildly depending on the editor they’ve hired in that particular community.

  14. From my own experience writing freelance for a local Patch in the D.C. area (no longer), and from reading the site (something I do less and less; there’s little return for my time), the problem is not one person, one town. The editor has a budget for freelancers and should be able, using those people and his or her own reportorial abilities, to cover the community. I suspect the editor ends up spending way too much time dealing with management or the demands of other Patch sites, because there is very little news on the site. And it’s not hyperlocal at all — there are plenty of larger stories covered.

    Given that it’s an AOL product, you’d think the design would be better. It’s been changed at least once in a big way, but the product itself hasn’t improved. One problem is that the headlines for the blurbs on the front page cut off after a certain number of characters, which looks ridiculous.

    Another problem is that local bloggers are not held to any type of standard. Case in point: I complained (privately) to the editor and a Patch blogger about non-factual material in his blog post. (I have intimate knowledge of the subject he was addressing). He didn’t want to correct his work, naturally, and the editor told me the bloggers are not held to the same standard, whatever that is. In essence, they can write whatever they want. BTW, I didn’t comment on the post because for me, it wasn’t worth starting the pissing match that would have resulted.

    I recently tipped off my local Patch site to a local story that definitely would have gotten some traffic. That was two weeks ago. Still, nothing.

    When local news is featured (city council meetings, for instance), the stories are extremely short and there are no links to more information that might help people learn about the issues involved.
    This is despite the power of the Web, which allows you to write as long as you want and link to anything and everything in the universe. Why not use that power?

    Oh, and the editing isn’t very good. Too many misspellings, typos, grammatical errors.

    When Patch arrived, I thought, great, now maybe we’ll get some journalism. I’ve been sorely disappointed and don’t see how Patch can possibly survive.

    • annatarkov says:

      This sounds like the issue people have already mentioned in multiple comments here which is that quality varies wildly from one Patch site to another. My cluster of Patches is just as good (and sometimes better) than the Chicago Tribune’s local online and print product, TribLocal. I actually see an equal number or grammatical and spelling errors in the Trib stuff (not in print of course) and they don’t link much at all whereas the Patches link like crazy and write very thorough stories on local issues: government, schools, local development, etc.

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  16. I wish I had one of those Patches in my area. But the fact that there are excellent sites out there shows that the model (w/ one editor) can work. You just need the right editor, and perhaps a good working relationship among the Patches located in the same geographic area.

    I still doubt the nationwide network will survive. Some local sites, however, may be able to keep going once the entire ship goes down. Perhaps the editors will buy their own sites from AOL.

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